by Tony Dimitry
The first time I saw him was on the train. He was seated facing me a few rows up. He sat with his legs crossed reading the newspaper. A picture of the president on a podium with the American flag draped in the background was on the front page. He wore an expensive blue suit with a striking red tie. He licked his fingers after finishing each page, carefully folding the paper into halves and fourths. I couldn’t stop looking at him for some reason. There was a familiarity to his face that haunted me.
I watched him the entire ride, only glancing away occasionally to not raise any suspicion. I had to watch, to decipher just who the uncanny resemblance was. My stop was coming soon but I still hadn’t figured out whom he looked like. The more I concentrated the murkier my recognition became. I resigned myself to never quite knowing who it was when I caught a glimpse of my own reflection in the window while the train passed underneath a tunnel. It took a moment for me to understand what was happening, but then with the same unexpected quality of a shooting star I understood: The man was an exact replica of myself. The same hairline; the same hair color; the same straight, thin nose; the same smallish lips. The lines of his forehead mimicked mine. It was a most amazing sight.
I thought for a moment about approaching the man. How many times in your life do you see a double of yourself? It was literally like looking into the mirror—a perfectly unblemished apparition sitting not but ten feet away from me. And yet the differences were as striking as the resemblances. He wore a suit I very well could never afford. He read the Journal while I carried the Post. He sat with perfect posture, his legs crossed and his body in one great symmetrical angle. I sat slumped in my seat, rubbing my lower back as it ached from the atrophy of stagnation. He had a smooth face devoid of stubble. I had forgotten to shave this morning and was beginning to look haggard and sullen.
Despite being identical twins, we were still different people sitting on the same train. All we had in common was the train and our face. I figured he must’ve come from a better family than myself. He must’ve been raised in some kind of posh suburb in Westchester or Connecticut. He probably went to a prestigious boarding school. Did his parents look exactly like mine? Wouldn’t they have to? And in a such a shallow world, how had his family risen to the heights of prominence and wealth while mine was mired in the undistinguished rank of the middle class? Perhaps he was playing a part. Perhaps he was masquerading in that suit, in those shoes, and with that dignified, respectable air when he was very well exactly like me only he couldn’t stand it anymore—and so he had decided to confront his mediocrity head on. Maybe the man was brilliant. Identical looks didn’t necessarily mean identical brains. He could be some kind of stock market genius, concocting algorithms for high profile investment banks. I figured, the clothes considering, that that was the best possible answer.
At Westbury he got off the train. I hesitated for a moment, wanting to follow him and see the answers to all my nagging questions. What if I never saw him again? The man was wearing my skin—had I not a right to follow him? But my body remained frozen as he exited and the doors shut with the sound of whistling air. I tried to catch a glimpse of him as the train sped away, but the mass of people obscured my chances of seeing him one more time. I spent the rest of the train ride in a panic, unable to understand what had just transpired. It didn’t quite feel real—more like those out of body experiences people sometimes mention. But I had all of my capacities still. It didn’t feel otherworldly.
When I got home I callously dismissed my wife. Nancy was carefully preparing dinner and didn’t pay me much attention when I shut myself into the den. I scoured the Internet to find that the phenomenon I had just witnessed was in fact called a doppelgänger. People around the world had experiences similar to mine. But knowing this was hardly what I would call comforting. Regardless of the fact that other people were in on this, that there was some solidarity in our numbers—I couldn’t shake the idea that I had seen a ghastly imposter, playing on me a diabolical game of charades.
I didn’t eat dinner that night. I tossed sleeplessly in bed. I looked at Nancy a few times and wondered whom my doppelgänger slept with every night. She was most likely a beauty of proportions I couldn’t even begin to fathom. I felt a wave of inferiority rush through my body as I replayed every moment of my life, trying to figure out where I had fouled things up, and where he had succeeded. I kept picturing him always two or three steps ahead of me. And behind each catastrophe, each moment of self-doubt, he was there somewhere lurking in the shadows, slinking away with a menacing smile plastered on his face. I didn’t tell Nancy. She would’ve only said I was overreacting. She would tell me that he most likely didn’t even look like me. But I had seen him. I had glimpsed the other version of myself on that afternoon train and been terrified ever since.
The next day I left the house early, much before Nancy woke for work. I took the earliest train into the city and waited in the terminal of Union Station for him, holding a newspaper close to my face while I examined the crowd. After a few hours of watching strange, unfamiliar faces go by I left the station and crept off to work. In the office I couldn’t concentrate on anything. My desk soon filled with assignments never touched because I could do nothing more than stare listlessly out the window.
I left the office and ran back to the train station around 3:30. No one seemed to notice. I waited in the main concourse of the terminal, following people around like a madman as they rushed to make it home before the peak commuting hours. I bought a ticket, dejected that I would never see him again. Maybe, I thought, it hadn’t really happened. Maybe it was some kind of a surreal daydream, a trick my mind had played on me to combat my otherwise mundane existence.
A week went by without seeing him. Then another week. I figured he must’ve noticed me, must’ve spotted me on the train that day and was now in hiding, worried I would seek him out, beg to know the secrets of his seamless success. I wanted to know where I had gone wrong, which I believed was exactly where he went right. How was it possible that the same person could have such jarring disparities in their lives?
It bothered me for some time, that memory of seeing myself, my better self. And then enough time passed that I didn’t think about it as often. I knew he was still out there, following me in step wherever I went. But I would never catch him.
The next time I saw him—well, it had been nearly a year since the first occurrence. Nancy was pregnant and the possibility of losing my job had become palpable. The notion of an exact replica of myself had lost its luster when I was confronted with the prospect of feeding another mouth, lost in the chore of looking for more stable work. But then, there he was again and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
I was in the city, not far from the park, when I came across him. I did a double take after passing him and I abruptly stopped on the sidewalk and watched him pass. He wore a long, flowing overcoat—the kind I saw powerful men wear but could never find, like they had their own special shop. He had on a different pair of designer shoes—these ones were softer and black. I followed him down Third Avenue, careful to keep a good distance between us, but not stray so far that I would lose him. I was jealous of his haircut. Even from behind, I could see the careful considerations his barber had taken with his dark brown hair—my hair. He walked for some length of time, talking on the phone through most of it, never once slowing his earnest stride. I grew tired, having trouble keeping up with his frenetic pace. When suddenly, he stopped. We were at Third and 64th, right across from the Central Park Zoo. It was winter and I could see the polar bears playing in the frigid pools.
He turned and looked directly at me, even though half way down the street. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone, pretended to make a call in order not bring any more attention on myself. Yet the doppelgänger still stared at me. Even from a distance I could sense the disquieting rage enveloping his body—my body. I started to turn around when suddenly he bolted in a dead sprint toward me. I was stunned, frozen for a moment, while this version of myself hurled its mass my way. Dear God, he was even faster than I was. Was there not one advantage he didn’t lord over me?
I searched in vain as I passed precariously through an intersection for a police office, someone to help me. The doppelgänger approached faster and faster, his strides long and graceful. I pounded the ground with short, quick steps that felt like running in quicksand. I thought about ducking into a side door, but the doors were locked at all of the private residences and tenements that surrounded me. He was merely a few feet away from me now, nearly within distance to jump and wrestle me to the ground. Instead, he clipped me on the back and, with a careful push, I fell into a thick, thorny rose bush. I found myself sprawled on the mulch, my other self looming larger than ever above me. He dragged me to my feet, pushed me against a sharp brownstone wall.
“What do you think you’re doing following me?”
Being that close to him was remarkable. I had never seen myself in flesh and blood—only the figment of my reflection staring back at me. It was a strange sight, especially under the circumstances.
“I wasn’t following you. I swear!”
“You’ve been following me for an hour. Who are you? What firm are you working for?”
He must’ve been a lawyer.
“No, no. It isn’t like that at all.”
“So you weren’t following me, that’s what you’re claiming?”
“Yes, yes I was. But I don’t work for any firm or nothing.”
“Then why are you following me?” he said, shoving me into the wall once more. “You some kind of nut job?”
“No, no. I sell insurance.”
He looked at me. He was genuinely baffled. I expected at any moment he would recognize the face he was staring into, recognize the man he was interrogating, that this man—me—was himself. But the spark, that moment of epiphany, never flashed into his eyes.
“Look at me,” I said. “Don’t I look familiar to you at all?”
He studied my face with a stern expression, but there was no hint of recognition. Perhaps he was too preoccupied with the intrusion of his privacy to notice. I wanted so hard to make him understand, to make him see that I only wanted to know how he’d done it. There were so many things I could learn from him. I just wanted him to teach me, to make me better. He was the proof that I wasn’t doomed to this existence.
“You just look like some kind of fucking nut.”
“No. Really, look at me.”
He pondered my face and, for a brief moment, I thought I could see something click in his mind. He let go of me and stared hard at my face. A man passed us on the street, trying to avert his eyes from the strange scene taking place.
“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“You see me every morning in the mirror.”
“I’m not playing this fucking game anymore. I’m calling the cops and you can explain it to them.”
“Just look,” I said, pleading with him to see what was right in front of him. “I look like you. We look exactly the same, like perfect clones or something.”
“Shut the fuck up,” he said, slamming me back into the wall. “You’re crazy, you’re some kind of flipping nut.”
“Can’t you see?” I screamed. “We are the same. I just want to know how you do it? How do you do it!?” I yelled, grabbing the collar of his coat. “Just tell me,” I said and, by then, I had burst into tears.
That was the last thing I said before he clubbed me, a hard right hook with his fist. I fell to the pavement, bracing my fall with my palms. I could feel the burning sensation of skin being ripped, torn as I slid along the ground. Then a barrage of kicks and punches fell down on me like a torrential downpour. I covered my face, covered my body with my hands, my legs, and my arms—anything to prevent further punishment. He stopped suddenly and stared down at me. He looked at his hands. His knuckles were bleeding badly and his overcoat was stained with my blood. He examined his balled-up fists like they were some strange species he had never before seen. I braced myself for further torment.
“Don’t ever fucking bother me again or I’ll kill you next time.”
He looked in both directions and bolted down the street, turning right and disappearing into a throng of people. I got up from the ground and pulled out a handkerchief. I wiped my face thoroughly and discarded the ruined white linen. I limped the rest of the way to the train station and I held my reflection in the window throughout the long trip home. I didn’t dare look away.
Tony Dimitry is an MFA student at California College of the Arts. He is currently working on a series of interrelated stories set in Ohio. He welcomes your comments on “A Familiar Face” at anthony.dimitry[at]purchase.edu.
photo by Brian Auer
by Charles Smith
Other than the churches—the small San Matias de Jalatlaco across the street and the towers of the Basilica de la Soledad about a quarter-mile west—the buildings of Oaxaca looked to me to be hugging the ground. The resulting openness of sky allowed the sun to blanket the second-story roof patio of the Casa Arnel until the early evening. I left my spot by the patio wall and returned to the heavy wrought-iron tables where I sat alone thumbing through my Mexico guide. The trip had been James’s idea. I intended to cancel the tickets when he died, but his mother insisted that I go—even in his absence.
The Casa Arnel was full, but most guests were not types who would hang around the hostel during daylight hours to enjoy its amenities. In the mornings the picnic tables in the courtyard were full of budget travelers drinking hot chocolate or instant coffee. They would chat with one another and develop itineraries for their day excursions outside Oaxaca to the Zapotec and Mixtec ruins at Monte Alban, Mitla or Hierve El Agua.
A couple came out to the patio and sat at a table across from me. The woman must have been just over six feet tall. Her heather-gray knit dress fit snugly to her full hips and breasts. She wore a silver heart-shaped locket. The man, who was significantly shorter, wore a t-shirt depicting a cartoon duck smashing a computer monitor with a sledge hammer. It clung to his large belly. The remains of the man’s hair had been shaved but he was compensating with his wiry blond beard.
They spread out a small picnic then started drinking mescal and playing with a Mexican bingo game called lotería. The game is played with a deck of fifty-four cards with numbers and stylized pictures on them: 1, the cock; 2, the little devil; 3, the woman; and so on. Each player takes a sheet showing sixteen of the pictures in a four-by-four grid. One player draws a card. If anyone has a matching picture on his sheet, he covers it with a bean or a penny.
“Doce,” I heard the woman call. “El Valiente!” Her Spanish was worse than mine. It sounded like she said “Doe Say” and “Hell Vally Hinty.” She held up a small drawing of a Latin toughie, his sombrero fallen to the ground.
“No hero here,” the man said and slapped the table.
“Me either,” the woman said.
They both took sips of mescal and chased it with Fresca. The man reached for the deck of face-down cards, but the woman dropped her hand on top of his. She said, “Slow down or we’ll be wiping my tamales off the terra cotta.”
The man lit a cigarette. I went back to reading my Mexico guide.
“Do you want some cheese?” I heard the woman ask a few minutes later. I didn’t realize she had approached until I saw her towering above me.
“We’ve got some brie, and some sort of Mexican string cheese,” she offered. “We have to finish it tonight because there’s no fridge in the room.”
I closed my guidebook and joined them at their table. I was glad for the company, even though their game seemed obnoxious. They looked older than me—maybe mid-thirties. He introduced himself as Wes. She was Lydia. I told them my name was Buzz.
“You here by yourself, Buzz?” Lydia asked.
“Unfortunately,” I said.
Wes said, “Well, you’re not alone now. Pick a card.”
He indicated the pile of lotería cards next to the mescal bottle. He took two paper cups from a stack, filled one with Fresca and one halfway with mescal and put them in front of me.
“They look like little tarot cards,” I said.
Lydia laughed. “They’re definitely going to tell your future.”
Wes and Lydia had added their own twist to the bingo game. One person drew one of the cards as in the regular game. However, if you didn’t have the picture on your big card, you took a drink. The only exceptions were the special cards for which all players were required to drink.
“What are the special cards?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” Lydia giggled. “You draw first.”
I pulled number eight: a tequila bottle on green field.
“El Ocho! Pass the bottle—everybody drinks!” Wes sounded like a carnival barker. He and Lydia lifted their cups in a toast. I lifted mine, then took a sip of the mescal, which burnt its grassy way to my stomach. I chased it with Fresca and took a couple of crackers that were meant as vehicles for the cheese.
We took turns drawing cards: 9, the barrel; 37, the world; 24, the parrot—everybody drinks because Arnel keeps parrots in the hotel courtyard. I learned that Wes and Lydia had been married for three years. They had just left their jobs and sold their house in Portland. They were going to a Spanish-language school in town and were just staying at Casa Arnel until their apartment became available on the 2nd. They didn’t have any plans once they finished their language class. They thought they might spend some time on the Oaxaca coast. I envied their ability to abandon their lives and hang out in Mexico.
“Why did you decide to come to Oaxaca?” I asked.
Wes and Lydia looked at one another. She touched the locket hanging on her chest. Wes cleared his throat.
“Lydia, here, is a Day of the Dead fuh-natic!” Wes said after a moment.
“It’s true,” Lydia said suddenly. “I do just love anything Day of the Dead: dancing skeletons, altars, tiny bottles of mescal, just anything.”
Lydia opened her eyes and they glazed over in a gesture of absolute, almost crazed, fanaticism. I felt like I shouldn’t have asked. I got the feeling that this was more than a break from the routine, that the tequila shots might be more than recreational.
“What about you?” Wes said.
“Vacation,” I said. I didn’t feel like divulging the details about James’s death, telling them that I was looking for a way to put him to rest.
“What are you guys doing tomorrow night to celebrate?” I asked cautiously.
“We bought tickets on that tour Arnel’s taking over to the cemetery in Xoxo,” Wes said. “You?”
“I’m not sure yet.” I wasn’t, but I was self-conscious about my response. Even though the guests at Casa Arnel were friendly with one another, and with me, I had found most of them to be cagey about their plans for Day of the Dead. I found it admirable that Wes and Lydia were honest in their response. I didn’t want to seem like the other lodgers who acted as though they’d been entrusted with knowledge of secret rituals and that knowledge had to be protected lest the dead refuse to return to us for the holiday.
“I saw the fliers for Arnel’s trip, but I didn’t sign up for it.” I had also seen the same fliers translated into German at a couple of cafés earlier in the day. My visions for the Day of the Dead hadn’t included busloads of Americans and Germans taking over a cemetery in a small Mexican village. James had told me that he wanted to spend the whole night in the graveyard and I knew that Arnel’s buses were coming back at midnight.
“Well,” Wes said. “What’s the next card?”
Lydia drew number 46, a serene red sun. She and I took sips of mescal. The real sun had just disappeared behind the hills and the patio lights flickered on, vibrating gently in the early evening twilight.
The idea for the Oaxaca trip had come up the year before when James and I attended San Francisco’s Day of the Dead celebration in the Mission district. Police barriers blocked traffic at either end of the street. The chain-link fence of the neighborhood baseball field served as one large altar into which people had posed flowers and banners reading “Viva La Muerte.”
Across the street, a plump Latina woman served beans and rice out of a pressure cooker on her front steps. There were a couple of churro carts and hot dog stands. Many people had put together costumes. They painted their faces as smiling cadavers with teeth from ear to ear. Even James had dug out an old Bauhaus t-shirt, its back proclaiming “Undead. Undead. Undead.”
A very short queen decked herself out in “Caterina” drag, with skeleton makeup and a black bustled dress. Black carnations and roses ornamented the wide brim of her straw hat. She sang “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” accompanied by a disco mix that blared from her battery-powered cassette deck. James knelt, taking both my hands in his and mouthing the lyrics broadly: If your hands were in mine, I’d be sure we’d not sever. Caterina was pleased with James’s audience participation and started gesturing and waving in our direction. My face flushed. I tugged free from James and made my way past some fire eaters wielding flaming swords and jugglers tossing around jack-o’-lanterns.
It drove me crazy when James acted like we were a couple—especially in public. People were always mistaking him for my boyfriend and I wanted them to know that wasn’t the case. I wanted the world to know I was available—that James didn’t have a monopoly on my affection. James never had trouble lining up the men and turning them out when he was done. I didn’t operate that way. I guess if I wanted to meet guys, I could have gone out more on my own. But everything—pub crawls, art openings, movies, dinners, everything—was always more fun with James. And I’ve never been able to introduce myself to men. With James I guess I was lucky. He had introduced himself to me.
Nearby, I could overhear the unfunny comedy banter of two men who performed out of adjacent makeshift graves.
What did the conductor say to the deceased percussionist?
You’re such a dead beat.
I’d say “You kill me”…but I’m already dead.
A crowd of skeletons playing drums and tambourines parted the crowd. Their Afro-Caribbean cadence propelled the parade that gathered and lost dancers along its way. James ran up behind me. He grabbed me and pulled me, dancing into the middle of the parade. A young woman next to us wore ratty elbow-length satin gloves and carried an umbrella frame trailing the last few remnants of its black cloth. It looked like a spindle-legged spider jumping above the dancers. James took her free hand and gave her a short spin to the music.
At 24th street, the procession turned east toward Potrero. I told James that I must have something to eat, so we broke from the crowd and slipped into a pupuseria.
“I didn’t realize the dead were so much fun,” I said.
“Aren’t they, though,” James said. “We should go see the real thing.”
“Promise me we’ll go next year.”
A promise. That seemed like a request for major commitment from James.
“Who knows what we’ll be doing at this time next year…”
“We can eat tamales and drink mescal all night by a candle-lit grave,” James said.
He held my hands and made a puppy face. I couldn’t say “no.”
“Ok, sure, we’ll go to Mexico.”
I figured he was just drunk or high, thought he might forget about it when the time came. James took me by the shoulders and pulled my face to his, giving me a messy kiss on the lips.
I pushed him away, yelling, “You lead me on, James! I’m not going anywhere with you. Ever!”
Conversations in the restaurant stopped.
“It was only a kiss…” James said. He reached for my arm, trying to calm me.
I pulled away and walked out of the restaurant, leaving him there. I wanted to put as much space as I could between us. We only saw one another once after that.
I had known James for eight years when he died. He was the first friend I made when I moved to San Francisco from Oklahoma. I had just arrived and was anxious to leave my room at the Tenderloin Y. Each evening I scoured the bulletin boards and coffee shops in the Mission, the only place where youngsters just out of college could afford housing.
One night, at a coffee shop out at 24th and Valencia, I was staring at the ads that papered the walls next to the bathroom when this guy came up carrying a fistful of fliers. His chin met me right at shoulder level. He was all big brown eyes and a sexy smile. His broad chest and almost pudgy stomach filled his faded black AC/DC t-shirt, which he wore over another long-sleeved white tee. He wore his gray workpants cut-off at the shins. I thought he was terribly cute.
“Hey,” he said.
I couldn’t believe he was talking to me.
“Are you looking for a rental?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m living at the Y and it’s kinda’ rough.”
“Come check out my place,” he said.
Before I could answer, he grabbed my hand and led me out the door and down the street. He acted like he knew what he was doing. When we rounded the corner, he tossed his roommate fliers in a trashcan.
That weekend, I moved into the former dining room of the ground floor flat on South Van Ness where James lived with two lesbians, Kiki and Michelle. The women occupied the bedroom. James lived across the hallway from me in a small room underneath the stairway that was probably not of the flat’s original construction. He called his room the Love Machine. It took me three or four months to get used to the myriad men in their underwear, occasionally nude, that I passed on my way to the toilet or kitchen. I wasn’t dating much and found myself torn between thoughts of “I hope he doesn’t take the stereo” and fantasies of the exotic acts that must happen behind the door of the Love Machine.
Back then, I was waiting tables in the evening. Sometimes James and I found ourselves sharing afternoons off. We’d sit in the living room, smoke pot and listen to the stereo while watching reruns of sitcoms from the 80’s with the TV’s sound turned all the way down. I was a sucker for The Facts of Life but James preferred The Cosby Show.
“I swear it’s like seeing God,” James would say. “When Denise Huxtable’s lips synchronize with Trent Rezonor’s voice.”
“I will let you down,” I would sing, bastardizing Nine Inch Nails in my whiniest Denise voice.
“I will make you hurt,” James would mimic, then pass the pipe.
James and I became best friends living together in that flat on South Van Ness Street. We were there for three years until Kiki and Michelle decided to move to Idaho and buy a farmhouse. When the house split up, I was dating my first boyfriend, whom I’d met through Michelle, so I moved to the Castro with him. James took a studio on Guerrero. He listened to me cry when living with my boyfriend didn’t work out barely two months later. He told me over the phone I could stay with him in his studio while I looked for a new apartment.
“Your place is so tiny,” I said. “Where will I sleep?”
“In my bed,” James said.
“And where will you sleep?”
“With you—we don’t want you to go into shock or get the two-in-the-bed dt’s.”
“Right,” I said. “We wouldn’t want that.”
That Saturday we packed my things off to a storage unit and I moved in with James. When it was time for bed, James stripped to his briefs and I put on my pajamas. I realized that, in the years of living with him as his housemate—this was the most naked I’d seen him. A small scar snaked just west of his belly button to the waistband of his shorts.
“You’re going to wear all that?” he asked.
“I get a chest cold if I don’t,” I said, pulling back the covers. “By the way, just how many men have slept in this bed?”
“You’d be surprised how few,” James said, sliding between the sheets which were covered with pictures of cowboys and horses and teepees.
“Oh really?” I lay on my side and nestled my face into the pillow.
“Yes,” James said propping himself on his elbow. He was behind me looking over my shoulder. “If they need to sleep, I send them home.”
“I guess I’m an exception because I don’t have a home.”
“Don’t you ever want a steady boyfriend?” I asked.
“Why settle for one when you can have them all?” he replied. “Besides, who needs a boyfriend when I have you?”
He kissed me on the cheek, pulled up the covers and went to sleep. He began to snore in my ear. I could feel him there behind me—his furry chest only inches from my shoulder blades. It was almost perfect. I lay awake, unable to roll over and tell James how much I wanted him. How I wanted the key to the Love Machine.
Five years later, James was hit by a Muni bus while riding his bicycle down Market Street. Brenda, James’s mother, eschewed a memorial service for him and opted instead for a wake at her bungalow in Palo Alto. James favored any venue where alcohol was served and tended to avoid most places stiffly ceremonial, so he probably would have approved. Other than James’s mom, I didn’t recognize anyone else at the wake. I assumed the other guests to be James’s relatives and Brenda’s neighbors.
I flipped through a picture book that lay open on the console table just inside the foyer. It traced James’s life in the saddle: Big Wheel, tricycle, banana seat and training wheels, mountain bike. Except for the bicycles, I couldn’t draw a connection. These photos were too still and too silent to show the James I knew. The boys could have been just any grinning child missing a front tooth holding his bike by the tasseled handlebars. It was late August, but even with the doors open Brenda’s house was stuffy, so I went outside to sit by the pool. I guzzled Chardonnay at a table underneath an umbrella with stripes the color of mint and Pepto-Bismol.
Brenda appeared out of a small group of mourners and approached me holding a small object in her hands. She was short like James and her dress flowed down around her ankles, making her look as if she hovered just above the earth. When James and I lived together, Brenda would come to San Francisco on Sunday shopping trips and take us to brunch. She thought I was a good influence on her son because I would wear a tie for these outings while James wore a thrift store blazer over a concert t-shirt. I wore my hair neatly parted to the side and James shaved his head bald. Even after James and I moved apart, Brenda sent me cards at Christmas and on my birthday.
“Richard,” Brenda said, having never cared to call me Buzz. “I’m so glad you came.”
“Of course,” I said. The hazy look in Brenda’s brown eyes made me think her doctor might have given her something more potent than Chardonnay to deal with her grief.
“This has come as such a shock.”
I thought the accident probably hadn’t come as much of a shock to James. I suppressed a grin thinking of his fatalistic mantra: “Gay man and a biker in San Francisco, if one doesn’t get you the other one will.”
“I’m sorry, Brenda,” I said. James was the youngest of her three sons. He had stayed close to her in California when his brothers had gone to the East Coast to be doctors or lawyers.
“James told me that you two had planned a trip to Mexico for Halloween,” Brenda said.
We hadn’t planned anything. It was all James. In fact, we’d only seen one another once over the past ten months. After the scene at the pupuseria, I didn’t speak to James for two months. He must have apologized for that kiss a thousand times on my answering machine. Sometime in January, I started talking to him on the phone every couple of weeks. I told him I was dating a guy from Marin and that I spent my weekends up there. He said he knew I was a nester, but that I’d better keep the end of October free.
I eventually gave in and agreed to meet James for drinks over Memorial Day. I remember recoiling when he went to hug me hello. Even though I was distant, he refused to relinquish his fantasy of the Oaxaca trip. He talked constantly about how he’d researched the logistics—a flight to Mexico City, then a first class bus from there. It felt strange to see him desperate for me, as a friend or traveling companion. But I found my mind wandering—imagining him stripped to his Fruit of the Looms, remembering his sloppy kiss. I told him that I hadn’t changed my mind. I wasn’t going with him to Mexico. The next month he booked the tickets anyway—both his and mine.
“Yes,” I said. I felt my cheeks warm with embarrassment. “I’ve been meaning to cancel the tickets.”
“Please don’t,” Brenda said, producing a small box that looked as if it might have come off the shelves of a souvenir shop in Waikiki. She pushed it across the table toward me. “James was so excited about the trip, I thought that you might still take him.”
“Is this James?” I put my hand on the lid of the box.
“It is a small portion of his cremains.”
I opened the box to find what appeared to be charred gravel, but used to be my best friend. Now that he was dead, James, or at least this bit of him, could fit in my hands. I thought he would probably have gotten some sort of gothic joy if he knew he would be divided this way. I wondered which part of him I’d gotten—elbow, ear or toe. All of a sudden, I wished he were sitting there with me, loaded on white wine, giving me his twisted perspective. I bit my lip and snapped the box shut.
“James told me he wouldn’t miss this trip for the world,” Brenda said. She picked up my wine glass and tossed back the last drink, her peachy lipstick leaving a smear on the rim.
“My Spanish is terrible,” I said.
I could tell by the softness of her face she was not being pushy. Something wise had bubbled up out of the drugs and the wine and had lent a sweetness to her voice.
“The trip to Mexico was all James’s idea. I wasn’t even sure…”
“Go,” Brenda said. “Take James’s ashes.”
There was a magnolia tree at the corner of the lot. I could smell the perfume of its lazy blossoms.
“Okay,” I said as Brenda started to smile. “I’ll go.”
Back in my room after the game of lotería with Lydia and Wes, I opened the window and went to bed. It had been cool outside, but was warm now. Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of voices chanting. I got out of bed and moved to the chair by the window. In the alleyway below, twenty or so women and children marched slowly along. They carried candles and plates of food. Behind them a small statue of the virgin rode on a pole. Her long white robes covered those carrying her. Their slow, haunting song rose from the alleyway, filling the street and echoing through the hotel. Viva María, Viva el Rosario, viva Santo Domingo…
The procession moved slowly, making its way to the church San Matias across the street. When I woke the next morning I wasn’t entirely sure if they had been real or just a part of one of my dreams, sirens welcoming me to the land of the dead. It was almost as if the images of the women had been permanently scorched into my memory so I’d see them drifting by any time I looked at that street.
The morning of November 1, the day of remembrance for the niños, I was feeling the effects of drinking too much mescal. It was noon by the time I made it to the Mercado de Abastos, a combination open-air food mall and flea market that covered four or five city blocks. It had been transformed into the “Market of the Dead” for the holiday. Three mounds of marigolds, bright orange hills that smelled of cut greenery and manure stood just inside the entryway. A large woman sitting on an overturned bucket scooped the flowers into pink plastic grocery bags and handed them to a man who weighed them and took your money.
I felt lost among the aisles of pan muerte. There were bread loaves of varying sizes adorned with small baroque faces and skulls with little gold headdresses or green halos. There was candy too: sugar skulls with red and green eyes, chocolate skulls wrapped in gold foil, little pink and blue coffins made of sugar with a string you pulled to make a paper skeleton pop out. Some stalls specialized in clay figurines. Little skeletons performed almost every possible human activity. They talked on miniature clay phones, played little cards, read little newspapers or cut other skeletons’ hair. I picked out a skeleton riding a bicycle. Were he still alive, I imagined James would place it on top of his giant television, which served as the display mantle in his studio apartment.
I browsed for a little while longer. I bought myself a set of lotería cards and a bottle of mescal, then stopped to have some soup at one of the restaurants at the middle of the market. When I checked my watch it was almost 5 p.m. I decided that I would go back to the Casa Arnel, retrieve James and take him to the general cemetery for the celebrations there.
I took a quick, cool shower when I got back to the Casa Arnel. I put on black pants and a black t-shirt with a picture of a skull with red alien antennae. I picked up James’s box, which I had taped over with white electrical tape and inscribed “LOVE MACHINE” in big red block letters. I opened it and, scooting James to one side, slipped in a couple of chocolate skulls and an airplane-sized bottle of mescal. I thumbed through the lotería cards and chose one for James: 27, El Corazon. I slid it into my back pocket.
On my way out for the evening I spied Wes on the patio by himself. I walked over to the table where he sat with a half-empty bottle.
“Happy Day of the Dead,” I said. “Weren’t you going with Lydia to Xoxo.”
“We missed the bus,” Wes said. His face was swollen and ruddy. I thought he might have just been crying. “Lydia isn’t feeling so well.”
I noticed that Wes only had one of the cards from his lotería set with him. I squinted, trying to discern an object he was caressing with his finger and thumb. It was a small clay cradle with skeletal baby inside. He was rocking it.
“La Muerte!” Wes barked and held up the card showing a skeleton wielding a sickle. “Everybody drinks.”
He offered me the bottle and I took a sip.
“We’ll I’m going over to the cemetery,” I said. “If you’d like to come…”
“No,” Wes said running his finger under his nose. “I’m not feeling it.”
“All right,” I said.
“You know, we had one,” he said holding up the cradle.
“A little girl. Lydia and me had a little baby girl.”
“I didn’t know,” I said.
I wasn’t sure if I should ask what happened or if I wanted to. I waited for Wes to explain, but he only shouted, “La Muerte!”
“La Muerte!” I said and left for the cemetery.
The Pantheón San Miguel, was about fifteen minutes away from Arnel down working-class streets I thought wouldn’t be out of place in Cincinnati or Detroit. I approached the cemetery from the front, down a divided tree-lined avenue. In front of the gates, the road was blocked and they had set up a small carnival. There was a ride, not much more than a merry-go-round with little cars driving in a circle for the little kids. There were shooting arcades and ring tosses and softball pitches.
Food stands lined the graveyard wall. People sat at picnic benches eating full Mexican dinners with fresh-made tortillas and roasted meats with mushrooms or squash blossoms. The street was so crowded with locals and tourists and vendors it was difficult to move.
Escaping the crowd, I made my way toward the cemetery’s main entrance as the parade arrived from the other side of town. Youths on stilts wore large sombreros, their faces painted white with eyes blacked out and their lips drawn over to look like teeth. One wore a black robe and carried a sickle. Another waved about a large white flag. Behind them was a marching band blaring traditional Mexican dances. A small group of cross-dressed revelers wearing plain white masks with their peasant dresses and overalls followed them. They pulled people out of the crowd to dance with them. If James were there, he would have been the first to join them. He would have been in heaven. I slipped inside the Pantheón and away from the din.
The crowd was much thinner inside. Numbered burial niches arrayed the wall of a long arcade. Small votives burned on their ledges, providing the only interior light. Some tombs remained unoccupied. Others had been filled and stuccoed over They were inscribed with names and dates, or initials, or in many cases simply Perpetuidad. The arches across from the wall were doorways that lead out to the paths between gravesites.
Sand paintings, sculpted by high-school art students, lined the arcade floor. Dressed in chaps and cowboy hat, a skeleton played the guitar surrounded by a sky of marigold blossoms. Red and white chrysanthemums showered a skeletal archer who shot arrows at the orange sun. Further down the way, college students had hung black and white woodcut prints fifteen feet high like draperies in the archways. On one Caterina danced in a long dress patterned with morning glories and starbursts. On another, skyscrapers choked out smoke.
I walked out along a pathway among the graves, many of which were covered with marigolds and votives. I turned back toward the arcade, which looked like a night-museum. People strolled tranquilly along, hand in hand, absorbed by the exhibits. I remembered the way James would always take my hand, starting with that first time in the coffee house. The way he locked his stubby fingers with mine. Sometimes he did it to lead me where he wanted to go. Other times it was spontaneous, as if he needed to touch me to know that I was there. I remember how I craved James’s affection, but hated it, too.
I carried James further out into the cemetery and sat on a bench where I could see one of the few Oaxacan families who still celebrated the holiday by having a graveside dinner with their loved ones. I watched them take their feast of tortillas and mole, wine and mescal. They were not boisterous and no one bothered them. They had not brought paper plates and cups or plastic forks and knives, but were eating off the family china.
I opened up James’s box and told him about the scene.
“They are telling stories,” I said. “You would love their china.”
“Lucinda is nursing her baby, ” I said, making up their family roles and giving them names. I thought that you’d never see a woman nursing her baby in a cemetery in the States.
“They have always been doing this,” I said. “They do it for grandma and grandpa and Cousin Pépé and Uncle Juan.”
A small boy hugged the leg of the oldest man, resting his small head on the man’s knee. The old man looked up and noticed me watching them and talking into James’s box. He held up his wine and nodded in my direction. I nodded back and gave a little wave.
I didn’t know what I expected to experience there: to see James’ face in the flicker of a candle or for my skin to ripple at the passing of an isolated mist. Even though I thought of him and the way he would have relished the Gothic details of the celebration—the death’s heads, the marigolds, the graveside vigils—what seemed most palpable to me was his absence. He hadn’t wanted to attend the Day of the Dead alone, or with any one of his tricks. So I guess he got what he asked for and I did too.
I didn’t sprinkle James’s ashes in the Pantheón San Miguel. I took the lotería card with its stylized anatomical heart from my pocket and scooped a little bit of soil from beside the path, mixing it in with James. I brought him home to San Francisco to be with me.
Charles Smith received his MFA from the University of San Francisco in 2005. He welcomes your comments on “Where Do The Dead Go…” at sfsmithcha[at]netscape.net.
photo by sfmission.
by Vanessa Ta